Page 6: Later life and reputation
Rowling, Wallace Edward
Teacher, army educator, politician, prime minister
This biography, written by John Henderson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Bill Rowling is one of New Zealand’s lesser-known prime ministers. His low-profile approach was regarded by some as weakness. In fact he was much more forceful than David Lange when it came to disciplining wayward members of Parliament, including Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble.
Rowling felt that he never had the opportunity to show what he was capable of as a leader. His legacy is that of a quiet nationalist. His nationalism included a puritanical element – that all should have the desire and opportunity to work for a better New Zealand. He was as much a champion of New Zealand independence as Norman Kirk or David Lange, but lacked the charisma to reinforce it and shape public opinion. His high-pitched voice, small stature and mannerisms attracted merciless lampooning from the opposition and the media.
Te Papa project
As finance minister, Rowling declared that his goal was to ensure New Zealand was developed by New Zealanders for New Zealanders. He warned that New Zealanders were in danger of losing control of their own country. Given these nationalistic sentiments, it was fitting that his final public service was to be the driving force behind the building of Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum of New Zealand. He chaired the trust board that oversaw the museum’s construction and implementation. Te Papa met Rowling’s objective of becoming a gathering point where New Zealanders could reflect on their country’s past and future.
Recognition and recreation
Rowling received recognition for his life of public service in 1983 with the award of a knighthood from his old nemesis Robert Muldoon, and became known as Sir Wallace Rowling. He kept up his interest in foreign affairs as president of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and remained keen on sport, especially rugby, boxing and golf. He had taken up running during his time in office after complaining that swimming in the small pool at Parliament’s Beehive did not provide enough interest.
Bill Rowling died of a brain tumour in Nelson on 31 October 1995. He was survived by his wife, Glen, and three of their children.